Monday, August 22, 2011

Longstreet Advances Closer to Washington: The Occupation of Mason's Hill & Munson's Hill

As I have discussed in previous posts, General James Longstreet stood at the vanguard of the Confederate advance through Northern Virginia in late summer of 1861.  During the end of August, Longstreet pushed a force of infantry beyond his picket line at Falls Church, Virginia and closer to the Union capital.*  Assisted by Col. J.E.B. Stuart's 1st Virginia Cavalry, the soldiers drove in Federal pickets and seized two prominences that dominated the surrounding countryside -- Mason's Hill and Munson's Hill.  The newly captured territory was only a handful of miles from the nation's capital.  As Longstreet later recalled, "[w]e were provokingly near Washington, with orders not to attempt to advance even to Alexandria."  (Longstreet, 59.)  From their new position, the Confederates had a full view of Washington, including the unfinished Capitol dome rising in the distance.  They also could observe the Union lines in Northern Virginia as far as Alexandria.

The soldiers set to work digging earthworks on Mason's and Munson's Hills. The heights swept the plains around Bailey's Crossroads, where the Leesburg & Alexandria Turnpike met the Colombia Turnpike.** As long as the Confederate forces were dug in atop these two hills, the Union Army dare not occupy territory closer to Falls Church and Annandale.

A view of Mason's Hill and Munson's Hill from an 1862 Union Army map, showing their proximity to Falls Church and Bailey's Crossroads (courtesy of Library of Congress).  Washington sits to the northeast (upper right of the map), about nine miles away.  The Leesburg & Alexandria Turnpike runs past Munson's Hill to Falls Church and beyond.  At the time this map was drawn, the Union was in control of this area and had erected forts, which are shown here. Today, historical markers are located near the site of  the Confederate positions on Mason's and Munson's Hills (see here and here).
The position at Mason's and Munson's Hills was normally held by a couple regiments of infantry, a battery, and Stuart's cavalry.  The infantry and artillery units rotated every few days, but Stuart's men remained a permanent fixture.  Longstreet remembered in his memoirs that because "the authorities allowed me but one battery. . . we collected a number of old wagon-wheels and mounted on them stove-pipes of different calibre, till we had formidable-looking batteries, some large enough of calibre to threaten Alexandria, and even the National Capitol and Executive Mansion."  (Longstreet, 60.)  According to Private Edgar Warfield of the 17th Virginia, Co.H, the soldiers had some fun with the stovepipe gun at the Union Army's expense.  As he related in his memoirs, "[i]t was a favorite trick to run it out into the center of the road and go through the motions of loading a gun and pointing it at the enemy, who promptly stampeded, under the impression that we had a piece of artillery with us." (Warfield, 60.)

The Confederates, taking full advantage of their position on the high ground, erected signal stations on Mason's and Munson's Hills. Officers from General Wade Hampton's Legion sent messages at night from across the Potomac to Munson's Hill. The Confederates also hatched a clever scheme to relay messages to Munson's Hill from Washington. An ex-Maryland legislator, E. Pliny Bryan, was sent to rent a room in Washington from which Munson's Hill could be seen. As described by E.P. Alexander, who at the time was active in Confederate intelligence gathering and signal work:
[Bryan] was to take the bearing of the hill by compass from his window, and communicate it to us by an agreed-upon advertisement in a daily paper, which we received regularly. This would give us the bearing on which to turn our powerful telescope, loaned for the purpose by a Charleston gentleman, and in position on Munson's Hill. Then we would identify his window by finding a coffee-pot in it, and by motions of the coffee-pot, and opening and shutting the blinds, etc., he would send his messages, and we would reply, if necessary, by a large flag and by firing guns. (Cummins 93.)
The plan was on the verge of being executed in September 1861, when the Confederates abandoned their advanced positions.

Looking at the Confederate earthworks on Munson's Hill down the Leesburg & Alexandria Turnpike from Bailey's Crossroads, September 1861 (courtesy of Virginia Historical Society).  The Confederate flag atop Munson's Hill was seen from as far away as Washington.  This sketch was drawn by Union soldier Robert Knox Sneden. 
At the end of August, the Confederates raised the Stars and Bars on Munson's Hill.  The New York Times informed its readers that the large flag "was visible with a glass from the top of the shiphouse at the Navy-yard" in Washington.  A similar flag was raised from Mason's Hill.  The presence of the Confederates so close to Washington, flying their flag defiantly and in plain view from the capital, caused consternation among Washingtonians and in the Union ranks. 

In September 1861, Longstreet moved the headquarters of his advanced forces to Home Hill  in Falls Church.  At the time of the Civil War, Home Hill was owned by John Bartlett, a transplant from New York.  The property is now called the Lawton House and is located on Lawton Street, just off of VA-7.  The photograph above shows Home Hill today.
Historical marker in front of Home Hill, recalling Longstreet's stay at the property. 
During this time, the Union Army relied on aerial reconnaissance by Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, who ascended in his balloon from Ft. Corcoran, Ball's Cross Roads, and Chain Bridge to observe the Confederate positions on the two hills.  According to Confederate General Jubal Early, Lowe kept a balloon up "almost constantly." (Early, 49.)  Confederate gunners atop Munson's Hill found Lowe an inviting target and fired shots at his balloon. Luckily for Lowe, they missed their mark. 

With the armies so close to one another, and tensions running high, fighting was bound to erupt in the no-man's land between the lines. In the next installment, I examine the skirmishing that took place around Munson's Hill and Bailey's Crossroads at the end of August and start of September 1861.


*According to an August 29, 1861 letter from Longstreet's aid, Tom Goree, to his uncle and sister, this advance likely took place around August 27.
**Bailey's Crossroads was spelled "Bailey's Cross Roads" at the time of the Civil War.


Edmund H. Cummins, "The Signal Corps in the Confederate States Army," Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XVI, at 93 (1888).

Thomas W. Cutrer, Longstreet's Aide: The Civil War Letters of Thomas J. Goree (1995).

Jubal Anderson Early & R.H. Early (ed.), Autobiographical Sketch and Narrative of the War Between the States (1912).

Bradley E. Gernand, A Virginia Village Goes to War: Falls Church During the Civil War (2002).

Frederick Stansbury Haydon, Military Ballooning During the Early Civil War (1941).

James Longstreet, From Manassas to Appomattox (1896).

Charles P. Poland, Jr., The Glories of War: Small Battles and Early Heroes of 1861 (2004).

"Special Dispatch from Washington," dated Aug. 31, 1861, New York Times, Sept. 1, 1861 edition.

Lee A. Wallace, Jr., 17th Virginia Infantry, from the Virginia Regimental History Series (1990).

Edgar Warfield, Manassas to Appomattox: The Civil War Memoirs of Pvt. Edgar Warfield, 17th Virginia Infantry (1996 ed.).

Jeffry D. Wert, General James Longstreet: The Confederacy's Most Controversial Solider (1994).


Anonymous said...

Great information...I was wondering why my High school was named after JEB Stuart. The school is located on the side of Munson's Hill.

Ron Baumgarten said...

That makes perfect sense! Glad I could assist!